Nigeria: Hundreds on death row may be innocent, says Amnesty-new report

Dreadful conditions: Prisoners on death row are held in cells where they can witness executions. After a prisoner has been hanged, other death row prisoners are forced to clean the gallow

Hundreds of those awaiting execution on Nigeria’s death rows did not have a fair trial and so may be innocent, said Amnesty International at a press conference in Abuja, Nigeria today as it launched a new report on the topic.

In its report, co-authored with Nigerian legal organisation LEDAP, Amnesty International exposed a catalogue of failings in the country’s criminal justice system, saying that it is “riddled with corruption, negligence and a nearly criminal lack of resources”.

Amnesty International called on the government of Nigeria to establish an immediate moratorium on executions in light of its findings.

Amnesty International’s Nigeria Researcher, Aster van Kregten said:

“It is truly horrifying to think of how many innocent people may have been executed and may still be executed. The judicial system is riddled with flaws that can have devastating consequences. For those accused of capital crimes, the effects are obviously deadly and irreversible.”

In its 78-page report, Amnesty International reveals how life on death row is extremely harsh: prisoners whose appeals are exhausted are held in cells where they can actually witness executions. After a prisoner has been hanged, other death row prisoners are forced to clean the gallows.

The report also exposes how:

- Confessions are often extracted under torture and the majority of those on death row were sentenced to death based on confessions alone.
- Torture by police occurs on a daily basis although torture is prohibited. Almost 80 per cent of inmates in Nigerian prisons say that they have been beaten, threatened with weapons or tortured in police cells
- Death penalty trials can take more than 10 years to conclude: some appeals have been pending for 14, 17 and even 24 years
-Negligence: many death row prisoners cannot even have their appeals heard because their case files have been lost
-Children's rights: although international law prohibits the use of the death penalty against child offenders, at least 40 death row prisoners were aged between 13 and 17 at the time of their alleged offence.

Aster van Kregten continued:

“The police are overstretched and under-resourced. Because of this, they rely heavily on confessions to ‘solve’ crimes – rather than on expensive investigations. Convictions based on such confessions are obviously very unsafe.”

National Co-ordinator of LEDAP, Chino Obiagwu said:

“Under Nigerian law, if a suspect confesses under pressure, threat or torture, it cannot be used as evidence in court.
“Judges know that there is widespread torture by the police – and yet they continue to sentence suspects to death based on these confessions, leading to many possibly innocent people being sentenced to death.”

Due to high crime rates, there is pressure on police to make quick arrests when a crime has been committed. Sometimes, if the police are unable to find a suspect, they arrest the wife, mother or brother of the suspect instead – or even a witness – in violation of Nigerian criminal procedure.

Jafar is 57 years old and has been on death row since 1984. He told Amnesty International:

“I am not an armed robber. I am a shoemaker. I bought a [motorcycle] from someone who stole it. The police asked me to be a witness. They got the man who sold [me] the [motorcycle] but shot him to death. After that, I became the suspect.”

Jafar filed an appeal 24 years ago, but he is still waiting for it to be heard. His case file has gone missing.

Chino Obiagwu said:

“The hundreds of people who have already been executed or are still awaiting execution in Nigeria all have one thing in common – they are poor.

“Speaking to those languishing on death row, it becomes clear that questions of guilt and innocence are almost irrelevant in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. It is all about if you can afford to pay to keep yourself out of the system – whether that means paying the police to adequately investigate your case, paying for a lawyer to defend you or paying to have your name put on a list of those eligible for pardon.”

Many prisoners awaiting trial and on death row told Amnesty International and LEDAP that the police picked them up and asked for money to release them. Those who couldn’t pay were treated as suspected armed robbers.

Other death row prisoners told Amnesty International that they were arrested when they went to a police station to report a crime they had witnessed and police demanded money for their release. Sometimes police asked for money for fuel, without which they could not visit witnesses or check alibis.

Chino Obiagwu said:

“Those with the fewest resources are at the greatest risk in Nigeria’s criminal justice system.”

Key death penalty facts:
-World trends: In 1977, just 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Today, 137 out of 192 UN member states have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.
-Africa is largely free of executions, with only seven of the African Union’s 53 member states known to have carried out executions in 2007.
-13 African countries are abolitionist in law and a further 22 are abolitionist in practice.
- In Nigeria executions are shrouded in secrecy. The Nigerian government has not officially reported any executions since 2002, although it is known that at least seven condemned prisoners – including six who never had an appeal – were secretly executed in 2006.

  • read the report

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